In the 1960s, as the Berlin Wall was erected to divide East and West Berlin, a stretch of Alameda Street served a similar role: It was an almost impassable barrier that divided white and black residents of Compton.
The borderlines shifted throughout the early 20th century, but it was Alameda—nicknamed the Berlin Wall—that served as “possibly the longest and most strictly held racial boundary in Los Angeles,” dividing the communities of South LA, says researcher Andrea Gibbons.
In her new book, City of Segregation, Gibbons documents how angry mobs crossed the borders to throw paint bombs and smash windows of black-owned homes and to spray bullets into the office of the local branch of the NAACP.
The book traces how black residents battled violence, abuse, and discrimination in LA’s housing market for nearly a century. It encompasses efforts by black homeowners to contest de jure segregation in the 1920s and the ongoing struggles with gentrification, displacement, and homelessness today.
A former tenant organizer in Los Angeles who now works as an urban housing researcher at the University of Salford, Manchester, Gibbons uses the book to honor the work of civil rights activists and community organizers, including the fearless Charlotta Bass, publisher of the California Eagle.
Below, Gibbons tells Curbed why LA epitomizes a certain version of U.S. urban planning based on suburban sprawl and car-centered transportation, how living in South Central LA for 10 years (before returning to complete her dissertation, which became the book) impacted her view of segregation, and why she remains hopeful in spite of the many obstacles to integration that still exist today.
Curbed: Early in the book, you contend with the question of whether Los Angeles represents the antithesis of urban planning. What led you to conclude that LA epitomizes—rather than rejects—a certain version of American urban planning?
Andrea Gibbons: LA is a good example of Western cities that grew up after the automobile, so it grew in different ways than East Coast cities. LA was never really constrained during its boom period by the need to be able to walk to work, or to take the train. You look at Phoenix, a lot of cities in Texas, they have a similar sprawling nature that’s quite different from Philly or New York. In that sense, it’s quite representative of that kind of city.
But I think what I found it represented was how central race was in its development, and I think that that is true of all U.S. cities. It’s played out in different ways, depending on what city you look at, but all across the country you get the same kind of segregation. You see it everywhere, so in that sense LA is not the pinnacle of urban planning, but it is emblematic of how race has shaped urban planning, and how it’s been a response to that.
In 1964, there were fewer than 500 nationally, but just six years later, there were more than 10,000, with many in LA. How did these groups help perpetuate the segregation that civil rights legislation was, on paper, able to abolish?
One of the primary movers in the formation of the city has been to develop space for white families—and to protect that space. When that became impossible to do legally, people had to look for different ways to achieve the same effect. Homeowners associations had always been very central in all of those efforts.
I kind of argue that it was a really natural thing when building these developments, especially the community builder phenomena, where you have builders developing huge tracts in different suburban areas. They were already developing the tracts and creating the homeowner association, and using that to defend against the “wrong” kind of person moving in. It was quite easy for them to see that formalizing that a bit more would have the same kind of effect.
I find them fascinating, because, when you think about America, if you have your own property, you can do whatever you want. That seems like a fundamental tenant of what it means to be American. But millions of people have chosen to live in neighborhoods where they can’t do whatever they want.
People got sued for sitting on their lawns in front of their house, one person got sued for wearing flip-flops around the neighborhood, all of this crazy stuff. You just think about all of these neighbors looking at each other, and it’s become this ugly phenomenon that I don’t think is entirely driven by race, but initially had a lot to do with that. It’s in reaction to civil rights, renewed white flight: You just see this quite fearful seeking for safety and high property values.
You have strong roots in LA as a former tenant organizer. How did that background orient your work while writing this book?
We were evicted from our house when I was 17, so I think that’s been one of the formative experiences of my life. I don’t believe it’s people’s fault that they’re poor. I was always very driven to change things, and I had a lot of frustration with generally how things are changed. I didn’t even know organizing was a thing, that there was this idea that people could come together to solve their own problems.
The work that I did at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, or SAJE, in LA was just incredible. We did a lot of work around slum housing, so a lot of it was just to try and get people’s houses into decent, sanitary condition, without the fear of harassment from landlords.
People living in terrible, shitty housing have different priorities than someone sitting in an office trying to think about how to make the city better. It was an incredibly powerful experience, and I remain convinced that it’s one of the key ways that the world will be improved.
We were so good at winning small battles, like the Residential Hotel ordinance. We won so many campaigns against individual landlords, but we weren’t winning the bigger picture, and gentrification was speeding up. I wanted to know more about how we’d ended up where we were, because when you’re doing community organizing you’re so caught up that you don’t have much time to think about things.
Having worked in South Central LA, it was so clear to me that race was central to whatever the answer was. Economics was obviously important, but seeing race, and the levels of segregation that we experience, and the fact that I was often the only white person ever, in room after room, bus after bus, just this lived experience of how horribly segregated it is, the fact that that isn’t central to how we theorize about what’s happening to cities I found incredibly frustrating.
In many ways, your book is rather dispiriting. You write about civil rights activists fighting for weeks at a time to get one family into a home in an all-white neighborhood, only to have the developer pull out at the last minute. What motivated you as you had to wade through this painful history?
We have come really far, and the book made me really feel a part of this longer history. The U.S. is good at forgetting things. We forget the bad things that have happened, but we also forget the good things. It’s quite amazing to understand this history and the fact that the fight we’re fighting now is in many ways as they were fighting 100 years ago, but it has shifted a lot.
A lot of stuff that happens through struggle you don’t really see, because it doesn’t result in a big shift in policy or saving a bunch of units. But with the women that we worked with, what a huge victory when one of them kicked her husband out and changed the locks.
Things really shouldn’t be this way. When I think about what happened to my family at 17, I still have this huge reservoir of sadness and anger, and so many people do.
Losing a home, there’s no way to describe what that feels like, even if it’s a home you didn’t like very much. It’s still a place that has memories, it’s still an important part of your life. That’s what was really powerful about the civil rights struggle: the incredible bravery of someone choosing to live somewhere that wasn’t completely safe.
In a way, we’re probably not now suffering a worse defeat than after they got rid of racial covenants, and they all thought they’d won and segregation would be done, and then it was worse than before. We need to remember that you move forward, then you go back, and you still fight.